The Portland Trail Blazers have finished their preseason exhibition schedule and are now awaiting the start of the 2022-23 regular season. A new lineup and new potential both failed to materialize during the season, ramp-up, leaving onlookers to speculate what the future holds in store.
That uncertainty opens up questions for the Blazers that simply didn’t exist for the last decade when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained pillars of constancy.
Over the next couple weeks, we’re going to examine some of those questions, particularly ones highlighted as important by Blazer’s Edge staff and readers.
In our inaugural post, we asked how Lillard would fare following abdominal surgery and his 32nd birthday. Next we talked about the arrival of starting power forward Jerami Grant, who operates in the territory between good and great, seemingly with a long-term lease, and explored the single gift Anfernee Simons needs to bring to the table in order to make a difference. We wondered whether the Blazers would ever find a stable, workable role for center Jusuf Nurkic. We also talked about the traffic jam at small forward and how the team might resolve it (or not), plus the need to play better on defense.
As the series winds down, we’re going to take a look at the man responsible for helping the team answer all these questions, Head Coach Chauncey Billups.
Technically, this will be Billups’ second season at the helm. It’s his first with an intact roster, though. He made it through the first 20 games of the 2021-22 campaign relatively unscathed, but after that, injuries forced him to cobble together an ever-more-fragile rotation out of reserves and add-ons. It was something like going to Ruth’s Chris and being served Salisbury Steak. No matter how you peeled the foil back on Portland’s lineup, it amounted to a salty, gooey mess.
Portland went 10-10 in those first 20 games last year. They finished the season 27-55. Their starting lineup in Game 82 read: Keon Johnson, Reggie Perry, Brandon Williams, CJ Elleby, and Didi Louzada. Only Johnson remains with the team today.
Despite 82 games under his belt, Billups is still a rookie head coach in the practical sense. He’ll need to prove himself to the locker room, management, and observers alike. We know he was an accomplished player. Did he deserve the seat granted to him by former President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey?
Coaching is particularly critical during this year of integration. The Blazers are working three new starters into the lineup in Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, and Jerami Grant. Of the bench players, only Nassir Little predates the opening game of last season. Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic now stand like jutting promontories amid a sea of newness.
This will also be the first year for Portland’s starters to play under Billups’ system as a unit, following ten years of relatively predictability under Head Coach Terry Stotts. Lillard is likely to fill a familiar defensive role, but Nurkic and the forwards will be used differently than in the past. On the other end, those shiny names will all want to touch the ball. Billups has to help his charges sort out a pecking order and make sure the offense flows enough to keep everyone happy-ish.
This is not a Duplo-kit roster. That box is marked ages 15+. Meanwhile Billups is, at best, two. He didn’t coach anywhere—college, high school, G-League—before taking the lead position in Portland. The assembly instructions aren’t impossible, but odds are he’s going to be slower at putting together the tiny, intricate pieces than a more experienced practitioner would be.
The returns in preseason were not positive. The Blazers didn’t just lose, they got blown out. Two key players—Nurkic and Simons—looked lost. Nurkic is a cipher in the best of times; any coach would need to spend time thinking about how to use him best. His fractured preseason performance appeared to leave Billups empty-handed. Nurk switched tactics and floor position game to game. Nothing worked.
In fact, Billups seemed stunned during large swaths of the exhibition season. The distance between the schemes he no doubt drew up on the whiteboard and what actually showed up on the floor was vast. That’s not necessarily a crime, given the environment, but again, Billups has shown nothing so far to indicate that he can help the team change course, or even manage a game that well. After 82 regular-season games, two training camps, and two preseasons, we still know less than Sergeant Schultz.
That, in itself, isn’t good. The situation won’t be helped by a brutal stretch to start the 2022-23 season schedule. If Portland isn’t prepared and cohesive, they’re going to get their lunch, dinner, and 16 of the next 17 breakfasts shoved right back in their faces. A 7-13 start to the year won’t exactly breed confidence in the system or Billups’ ability to turn it around.
This question not only needs to be answered, it needs to be answered quickly. There’s no way that Billups’ job is in danger at this point. The team is at risk of having to adopt the same, “Toss it to Dame and Pray” strategy that they were trying to get away from when they assembled this new lineup. They’re also at risk of passing too close to the gravitational pull of the 2023 Draft Lottery and not being able to swing their way out of it. Either of those eventualities would be disappointing.
The Blazers have talent, an All-NBA superstar, and the stated desire to win this season. Whether they can pull it all together remains to be seen. The difference between a competitive year and a wasted one will lie in how quickly they gel and how much success they see from it. That leaves Chauncey Billups at the eye of the storm. We’re going to find out how, or whether, he can pilot his team out of it.